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Retailers lead Dow, S&P 500 to record closing highs

Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange after the opening bell in New York, December 24, 2013. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

By Sam Forgione

NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. stocks rose on Thursday, with the Dow and S&P 500 ending at record highs as retail shares rallied following strong data about the holiday shopping season.

In a positive sign for economic growth, initial jobless claims fell 42,000 in the latest week, dropping to 338,000 - the lowest level in nearly a month. Analysts had expected 345,000 new claims.

Retail stocks stayed in the spotlight as the holiday shopping season drew to a close. Data published by MasterCard Advisors SpendingPulse said sales between November 1 and December 24 rose 2.3 percent, bucking concerns that the season had been weak.

The S&P retail index (.SPXRT) jumped 0.8 percent. The stock of Urban Outfitters (URBN.O) rose 2.2 percent to $37.55 and was one of the S&P 500's biggest percentage gainers. Online retailer Amazon.com Inc (AMZN) gained 1.3 percent to $404.39. Wal-Mart Stores Inc (WMT.N), a Dow component, added 0.5 percent to $78.39.

"I don't get why we seem to have an eternally upward market, but it looks like that's what we have," said Kim Forrest, senior equity research analyst at Fort Pitt Capital Group in Pittsburgh. "There's no reason to sell stocks, but also not much reason to buy except for that fact that we continue to be poised to go higher."

The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) jumped 122.33 points, or 0.75 percent, to end at 16,479.88, a record closing high. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index (^GSPC) gained 8.70 points, or 0.47 percent, to finish at 1,842.02, also a record closing high. The Nasdaq Composite Index (^IXIC) shot up 11.76 points, or 0.28 percent, to close at 4,167.18.

The Dow rose to a record closing high for the sixth straight session, the longest winning streak for the blue-chip average since March. The S&P 500 scored its fourth record closing high in a row. The Dow climbed to an all-time intraday high of 16,483, while the S&P 500 hit a record intraday high of 1,842.84.

Volume, though, was light in the first full day of trading since Monday. Markets were closed on Wednesday for Christmas Day. U.S. stock trading ended early on Tuesday.

About 3.3 billion shares changed hands on U.S. exchanges, well below the 6.2 billion average so far this month, according to data from BATS Global Markets.

"The path of least resistance, as we tread water, seems to be trending higher," said Justin Wiggs, managing director at Stifel Nicolaus in Baltimore. "We're pacing very light on volume."

About 51 percent of stocks traded on the New York Stock Exchange closed higher on the day, while 49 percent of Nasdaq-listed shares ended in positive territory.

Energy shares also climbed. Exxon Mobil Corp (XOM) shot up 1.7 percent to end at $100.90 and helped boost the Dow. Chevron Corp (CVX), another Dow component, rose 1.1 percent to close at $124.81.

The S&P 500 has soared 29.2 percent this year, largely due to stimulus from the U.S. Federal Reserve. The index is on track for its best year since 1997. The Dow has gained 25.8 percent in 2013 while the Nasdaq has jumped 38 percent.

In another black eye for the retail industry, the hackers who attacked Target Corp (TGT) and compromised up to 40 million credit cards and debit cards also managed to steal encrypted personal identification numbers, a senior payments executive told Reuters.

The discount store chain's stock rose 1.3 percent to end at $62.48, though it remained down 1.7 percent from its close on December 18.

In the telecom sector, sources close to the matter told Reuters that Japan's SoftBank Corp (TYO:9984) was in talks to buy T-Mobile US Inc (TMUS.N). Shares of T-Mobile US traded at their highest levels since 2007, gaining 2.3 percent to close at $32.93, just off an intraday high of $32.95.

In the bond market, U.S. benchmark Treasuries yields edged higher and were just below their two-year high of 3 percent. Analysts said that if yields stay at that level for an extended period, it might be a negative for stocks and other risky assets.

(Additional reporting by Ryan Vlastelica; Editing by Jan Paschal)